How my friend copes with her disability at work

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Wendy Waters suggested that I write about how to deal with disabilities in the workplace. So here’s a story about my friend Ann, who has a really deep voice. It isn’t a sexy deep voice; it sounds more like Oscar the Grouch with a sore throat or Darth Vader on Prozac.

Her voice, which is a result of a birth complication, is a disability that she must deal with daily and for the most part, has overcome. While I know this now, and it’s the basis for this story, I didn't always see things that way.

I knew Ann in grade school where I confess to having had evil thoughts:

1. Why is she first chair in saxophone and I am last chair in oboe? She has the right mouth for wind instruments, and I don't. It's not fair.
2. Why is she class president and I am not even getting invited to boy-girl parties? How can someone with such an awful voice be so much more popular than I am?

But Ann and I ended up on the high-school track team together, and we became close friends. I spent so much time with her that I stopped noticing that her voice was different than other people’s. It seemed normal to me.

But there were constant reminders: restaurant customers stared when they heard us talking. Often sales people did not hear what she wanted because they were so stunned by the sound of her voice. Ann never lost patience, never seemed uncomfortable. I never knew how she did it.

In the track world you meet tons of kids from schools all over the state, and when Ann walked by, I heard lots of them say: “What's wrong with her voice?”

When I asked Ann if she felt weird about how she sounded, she'd say no. “A deep voice sounds authoritative,” she’d tell me.

Ann flourished in college. She learned to be extra nice to people because they usually would be extra nice back. She became very loyal to friends who stuck by her because so many others shied away after hearing her speak. Naturally, she knew she was different, but good grades could help her overcome prejudices and she excelled in school.

After college she went to a top advertising firm. I assume that her voice was not a problem during job interviews, or at least that interviewers believed Ann could overcome her voice impediment enough to impress potential clients.

But then she was assigned to a manager who hated her. He berated her intelligence, made sexually offensive comments around her, and generally let her know he did not want her around. In truth, his actions amounted to harassment. But her harasser had leverage, so Ann had to leave the company.

Once you leave a high-profile company without recommendations, you can pretty much forget going to another company in the same industry. So Ann returned to where she flourished — school. She took programming classes, and a classmate liked her so much that he got her a job. His software firm needed someone who knew advertising and someone who knew programming, and the company liked the idea of Ann wearing two hats.

The company went under in the tech meltdown of 2002, but Ann found that by switching gears, she had developed a new specialty, which is in a very narrow niche that she now dominates (and doesn’t want me to identify because she wasn’t thrilled that I was writing about any of this). But the bottom line is that things are good for Ann now. She weathered many storms and is successful despite her disability. Here are her tips for others who are struggling with some kind of impediment. But the tips are applicable to all of us:

1. Don't blame other people for your failures. Take responsibility for your life and move past people who don't help you.
2. Have patience with yourself if you don't choose the right career on the first try. Trust that you will find a place that’s right for you, and keep looking.
3. Convince yourself you are great. Then convincing other people is much easier.

4 replies
  1. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    This is very interesting about Ann. I commend her. I would not do as well with a disability…I’m pretty sure of that. The book, “Waist High in the World. Life Among the Nondisabled” gives great perspective into living with a disability. I think that the power of technology (assistive devices, connecting people with similar experiences, and more) provides amazing opportunities for those with disabilities though. Another interesting area to explore.

  2. Mayzee
    Mayzee says:

    I applaud Ann for her tenacity. I too have a number of friends who cope with disabilities and flourish. One was born with severe cerebral palsy. I have known him since kindergarten. He never felt sorry for himself, but excelled in school and became a wonderful sportswriter, even though he will never run, walk or throw a ball.

    There are also some of us (and I am in this category) who have invisible disabilities and can be very misunderstood and self deprecating. People often say, “You look so strong and healthy.” And I smile and don’t tell them that I feel like I may faint standing right there in front of them. I have a seizure disorder complicated by severe chronic anaemia. The anaemia temporarily improves, but never completely leaves and I will be on medication for life.

    People often don’t understand that you are an 8 cylinder car running on 4 cylinders, but you cope and do the best you can, and try not to kick yourself when you’re down and so exhausted that you think you might drop dead on the spot… right there in the mall/office/bus/checkout line.

    These invisible disabilities should also be discussed at some point. They add a different element to the topic.

    • KSF
      KSF says:

      Trying to get back in the job market with an invisible disability has been a struggle. Now the economy has tanked, too. Look, I’m pushing myself as hard as I can, but it’s never enough! My energy just isn’t high enough to work and get through school and blast out of my entrapped marriage to a person who refuses to work but whom I need because if I tried to do all that AND care for an 11 year old. How do I get to be one of those disabled people who work, go to school, run a business on the side… Last time I tried that I passed out on my kitchen floor. Failure is not an option and I just have to blast out.

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